Baking a cake from scratch is scary. You can tell this from supermarket aisles lined with cake mixes, and the scant likelihood of ever running into a homemade cake at an office party or potluck dinner.
Cookbook author Susan G. Purdy understands the fear. “Everyone loves a home to smell as if there were a cake in the oven, but no one wants to put it there,” she acknowledges in “The Perfect Cake” (Broadway Books; $19.95).
A teacher and author of several books on baking, Purdy attempts to make the process so clear that even a beginner will be successful. It’s a matter of chemistry and techniques that can be learned, she insists, not magic or guesswork. Maybe so. Still, there are variables that can affect the outcome, like stirring too much or not enough, a slight difference in pans or an oven that performs differently from the one in which the recipe was tested.
To eliminate these stumbling blocks, Purdy devotes many pages to technique, ingredients and equipment. However, impatient readers will probably skip to the recipes. These are written with plenty of detail, as if Purdy were working alongside. The format is unusual--pan sizes, pan preparation, baking time and yield are listed in the margin, not in the recipe. This arrangement makes it possible to grasp the essentials at a glance.
Recipes start with the “foolproof” 1-2-3-4 cake, followed by the two-egg white cake, which has to be easy. Purdy made it at the age of 7. Each includes so many variations that the beginner who masters both will have a repertoire of 13 cakes, more than most would ever bake in a lifetime.
But this book isn’t just for novices. It goes on to more intricate recipes for experienced bakers, such as the southern Lane Cake, with its complex filling of fruits, nuts and coconut; the Christmas log cake buche de Noel; a Grand Marnier genoise; a chestnut mousse cake and an eight-layer chocolate cake.
Still, the intent is to get people baking who would not otherwise do so. If layer cakes with frosting are too intimidating, Purdy offers cakes baked in square or loaf pans, upside-down cakes and pudding cakes, which separate into cake and soft pudding as they bake. Her banana-chocolate chip cake is very satisfactory. The two-egg white cake baked up a little dry, but met the easy-to-put-together claim. But one person’s quick is not always another’s; “quick chopped apple cake” was not very quick. It took a long time to cut enough apples into 1/4-inch pieces to fill 3 cups.
Although exhaustive in content, the book is far from intimidating, because Purdy’s approach is to encourage new bakers rather than talk down to them. She can even make baking sound like fun.